Keith Emerson, Circus Sept. 2, 1977

From Circus Magazine, Issue 163, September 2, 1977
The Emerson, Lake and Palmer Tapes - ELP as interviewed by Jim Farber
PREFACE: Even before he became the prime mover behind ELP, keyboardist Keith Emerson was forging new directions in popular music. As the leader of his former rock format, The Nice, Keith literally invented the classic-rock form, which he later developed with ELP. Circus Magazine caught up with Keith early in ELP's current US tour, to discuss his music and his Rodney Dangerfield-like struggle to gain respect in the classical world.
There must be a basic suicidal element to my existence. I like to drive motorbikes as fast as possible. I've got a few at home that are closer to me than anything else. I've got a pilot's license as well.

I've been able to develop these activities more over the last two years I've been off the road. You have to bear in mind that I jumped straight from The Nice into forming ELP and after all that I needed the long break. I needed to get away from the music business. Several times the band "officially" split up and we didn't speak to one another at all. As far as we were concerned, ELP was no more. But eventually, we came to chat now and again, and we'd play things for one another and we all had great respect for what each other had been doing privately.

And the question was posted of what to do with all our material. Eventually, it was Greg's idea to record with a solo side apiece. It took me a while to agree to that because I'd been wanting to do a total solo thing for a long time. Because every time ELP had been due for an album, we'd be stuck for material and the stuff I planned for a solo album would always wind up with ELP, so I never really had a chance to be on my own. That was even the case with some group stuff on Works.

"Pirates" was going to go on my solo album. The story behind that is this: it had been suggested that I write the music to The Dogs of War, a novel by Fredric Forsyth. I started writing the music and Norman Jewison was producing the film. The next thing I know, he'd accepted the music but the idea of doing the film had been dropped. I don't know why. It was a good book and it would have made a da*n good film. So here I was with no film but music that was still usable. I went to Greg and said, "Let's use this, and with the imagery I see behind this, you should write lyrics about mercenaries," and Greg said he didn't like that and wanted to come up with something else.

About a month later, Greg rang me up and he had Pete Sinfield with him, and he said, "I just hit on a good subject, how about pirates?" I figured, they DO have a romantic image about them, like mercenaries, so I said OK. So then Greg and Pete worked like mad -- the longest they've ever worked on one piece of music. They literally delved into the history of pirates and that's why the lyrics turned out so well. The idea of pirates was good for my music because my music is very adventurous, much like an adventure novel. It demands to have visuals connected with it.

I think the orchestra really helps give my music the extra dimension it needs. As I listen back to all the ELP albums, I always hear them slightly augmented. Although an orchestra wasn't behind Brain Salad Surgery or Tarkus, I'd always hear it in my mind. I wanted to hear the records bigger than they actually were and I soon realized that I was fooling myself, and considered that orchestration was what I should be getting into. Who knows? Maybe next year I may be thoroughly sick of orchestras. I remember saying that after The Nice, I never wanted to work with an orchestra again because they weren't at all helpful. When I recorded with the London Philharmonic -- to them it was just a joke. It was ridiculous. The brass section at the back would be reading porn magazines and the conductor wouldn't even see it. The couldn't give a sh!t about this new piece of music.

But I was pretty stubborn and just to throw them off, I booked studio time for six sessions -- more than I would ever need. When I told them I wanted six sessions they couldn't believe it. But when I said, "Look, you're not taking me seriously and I'm going to book you guys until you get it right," then they figured I meant business.

The record company tells me my piano concerto is being played on classical stations (NYC's WNCN for instance) and I say, "Good, that's all I wanted to do." Because, one worry I did have was that being put on an album such as Works, I thought it might get lost and might not be taken seriously or played by other than rock people. I'm pleased that all sorts of people have taken an interest in it. I know the London Philharmonic are considering it as part of their regular repertoire and I'm really pleased about that. It would be ideal to have somebody else have a go at it. That's really a major goal of mine, and it's always very rewarding to see your pieces performed.

I don't tend to analyze my composing. Composing with me is and instinctive type of thing. I know that it works but I don't know why. On the concerto, I worked with John Mayer. He had no hand in the composing but he was a tremendous help in formulating the direction it should go in. When I started writing the concerto I was very at peace in the countryside. I had done the typical pop star's trip of buying a house in the countryside, a very nice place in Sussex, and this is reflected in the first movement which is very pastoral. The second movement is also at one with the universe. And then the da*n place burned down, due to some electrical fault. This great place I'd been working for ten years had burned itself to the ground and I was totally numb. You can see that anger in the third movement which is very frenetic.

Aaron Copland is the classical composer I listen to most. I admire him tremendously. I was very flattered when I heard that Copland like my version of "Hoedown". He didn't tell me directly, it came through his publishing company. After doing another Copland piece, "Fanfare," I was a bit dubious about our treatment of it because it wasn't straight. So I sent Copland a version of "Fanfare" without the improvisation in the middle and the message came back through his publishing company that he could not see why we would want that version to come out since we'd done nothing more with it than he'd done. So I got back to the publisher and said, "Look, I didn't send the whole version because I thought Copland might find it offensive." And they said, "No, Copland's just a 12-year old at heart, he'd love anything like that." So I sent him the complete version and that he liked.

That kind of thing is very nice because I feel more for doing other people's works than for my own. It's like adultery, really. I take particular pride in having a piece accepted as a legitimate work by the composer and whenever possible I'll go see them.

When I did the piece "Toccata," I had to get Ginastera's permission and I though it would be best to visit him personally. He was living in Geneva. He had this very lavish apartment. We were met at the door by a butler, it was all very formal and I was just quaking. Ginastera asked to hear the tape of "Toccata" and he stuck it in this old player with very sh!tty speakers -- he has it set to mono -- and he listened to it for about two minutes and then switched off the tape recorder and I though, "Oh, Christ." He was fumbling around with the thing, he obviously didn't know how to work it, so I went over and helped him rewind it and this time he listened with his eyes wide open and at the end he screamed, "TERRIBLE!" Or so I thought. Actually, he had yelled, "Formidable!!" -- which means very good.

I first started doing classical pieces with The Nice because in those days the place of a rock group, such as The Beatles, was to show the audience a new direction. As The Beatles had opened up Ravi Shankar, I was trying to open up classical music in a European form. I've always tried to bring people different things. If I've turned people on to all sorts of music, that's great. that's what I really want to do.

Thanks to Rob Adams,